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Some will argue their problems have been overblown, others will argue they’ve actually not been given enough attention. The fact of the matter though is that Liverpool have been immensely unfortunate with injuries at centre-back, and that their woes have had a ripple effect on the side that has led to a disappointing Premier League title defence, though they may still claim a top-four finish that is commendable in the circumstances.
There have been other factors in their demise, including a complete team-wide sapping of confidence in early 2021 when they lost six straight matches at Anfield, but most of them point back to lacking key figures in defence, even though Fabinho deputised well there for the first few months without Virgil van Dijk.
If losing Van Dijk and Joe Gomez for the season wasn’t enough, their best replacement Joel Matip suffered constant niggles and then himself picked up a season-ending injury, while stand-ins Fabinho and Jordan Henderson succumbed to problems too.
Nat Phillips, Rhys Williams and the on-loan Ozan Kabak have been Liverpool’s trusted centre-halves for the run-in, and even the youthful trio have been hit by knocks too. Kabak may never even play for the Merseyside club again due to injury, with it looking unlikely his £18m to-buy option will be exercised.
As Harry Maguire’s absence for Manchester United has pointed out, the disruption of missing such influential centre-backs – particularly Van Dijk – is huge. It upsets the entire team. See the difference in Liverpool’s 2021 performances with Fabinho in midfield and him in defence as just one example. Henderson was sorely missed in the middle when he stepped into the backline too.
Since Red Devils captain Maguire sustained an ankle problem against Aston Villa, United have lost 2-1 to Leicester, 4-2 to Liverpool at Old Trafford and drawn 1-1 with already-relegated Fulham.
Before that, with Maguire playing the full 90 minutes of every match, they had lost just once in 27 league games since the start of November and were 14 unbeaten.
United conceded six times in their last 11 league games with Maguire in the side and then leaked seven in three without him, with Liverpool running riot at their home ground. On another night Jurgen Klopp’s men might have scored seven or eight. The late goal they conceded to Fulham was also sloppy.
Their neighbours Manchester City can attest to Liverpool and United’s problems. City have conceded a league-best 32 goals in 37 games this season with Ruben Dias having a massive impact at the Etihad since signing from Benfica last summer.
Though that figure is only three times less than City conceded last season when finishing second, the success of Dias alongside John Stones and also at times Aymeric Laporte has been fundamental to Pep Guardiola and co. regaining their crown.
With Laporte hit by a knee injury last season, when Dias was still playing in Portugal, City slipped to seven of their nine league defeats without the Frenchman – who recently switched nationalities to Spain.
Five of those losses came in a 19-game spell between August and January and by the time he returned to the pitch against Sheffield United on January 21, a then-still-unbeaten Liverpool were 16 points clear with a game in hand. City’s title race was already run.
City reacted to that in the 2020 summer transfer window and enjoyed a similar run of form as Liverpool did the previous season with a 15-game top-flight winning streak between December last year and March of this year in which they conceded a mere five goals and kept 10 clean sheets.
They also won the Carabao Cup last month and could win a maiden Champions League too, with Player of the Year frontrunner Dias an absolutely huge part of their success, and a rejuvenated Stones alongside him vital too.
It looks like Liverpool will follow suit and react to their own defensive troubles, which have been far more severe than their rivals. RB Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate is their chosen target to strengthen their options at the heart of the back four with the £34million Frenchman highly likely to arrive at Anfield this summer.
Considering the impact of Laporte and Maguire’s absences on City and United, Liverpool can take hope that with Van Dijk and Konate at the back, and the likes of Gomez, Matip and perhaps even Phillips in reserve, they can get back into title contention next term.
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Before then, they need to get over the line to qualify for the Champions League, which Klopp has said would be “absolutely massive” and one of his finest achievements in charge of the Reds despite ending their 30-year title drought and winning a sixth European Cup.
He added earlier this week: “We don’t have a lot of options in some positions. Maybe we deserve it with the injuries and all the things we went through this year.”
In light of City and United’s struggles through missing just one player, that Liverpool have not had any of the three senior natural centre-halves they started the season with since January 28 means Klopp is right – it truly would be a huge achievement.
Particularly so given Liverpool’s turnaround. Since winning just three of 14 games between December 27 and March 7, losing eight, Liverpool are now unbeaten in the past nine, winning seven. They beat Burnley 3-0 on Wednesday night to put themselves 90 minutes away from a fifth successive top-four finish.
If they can secure Champions League football for next season at the weekend against Crystal Palace – and they will certainly be the favourites given the bonus of having 10,000 fans present at Anfield – then this season can effectively be written off without much consequence. And if Liverpool make the right moves in the summer, and get a fully fit Van Dijk back, perhaps they can get back to challenging for titles again next season.
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